Review: At first glance seeing this nestled alongside genuine classics such as John Martyn's Solid Air, Carole King's Tapestry and Black Sabbath's eponymous debut might seem a bit rum but there you go. As much as I like to see a band like Faust assault my local social club with power tools I also enjoy a good melody, and it's tough to find an album more shamelessly pop than Aquarium.
I don't subscribe to the notion of a 'guilty pleasure' - it's either something you like or you don't. The idea that, within certain company, I'd have to accompany the revelation that I own an Aqua album with knowing winks and ironic snickers makes me want to throw up. In any case, I'd probably be happier spending an evening with a person who enthuses about ABBA or Frankie Goes To Hollywood than some mithering real-ale dimwit muttering into his (always his) beard about Bongo Fury.
Aquarium - twenty years old in 2017, uh huh - straddles a couple of eras. On the one hand, it's a product of snap-to-grid production techniques which means that happy accidents like the telephone ringing at the end of David Bowie's 'Life On Mars', the airplane that invades Led Zeppelin's 'Black Country Woman' or even the squeaking bass drum pedal at the beginning of Robin Trower's 'The Fool And Me' could never happen. On the other hand, the pre-shuffle Aquarium is sequenced like a proper album, eschewing the modern trend of front-loading with the singles. It also occupies a time just prior to the Great Compact Disc Bloat, meaning it clocks in at a brisk forty-one minutes. (Within two or three years it wasn't uncommon for bands to imagine that their fans wanted every half-thought studio jam or bit of inconsequential audio fluff, routinely pushing releases over the hour mark - and let's not even get started with 'hidden' tracks.)
Aqua were Lene Nystrom (vocals), Rene Dif ("vocals"), Soren Rasted (keyboards) and Claus Norreen (possibly the world's most under-employed guitarist) and during the late 1990s were undoubtedly the biggest thing to come out of Denmark since Lego thanks to the international hits 'Barbie Girl', 'Doctor Jones' and 'Turn Back Time', all present on this album. The odd acoustic flourish aside poor Claus seemed to do fuck all, whilst 'good time bald guy' Rene occupied a space somewhere in the realm of Flava Flav (which is a rung up from Bez (Happy Mondays) and Paul Rutherford (the aforementioned Frankie Goes To Hollywood), inasmuch as their contributions are sometimes audible). In fact, Rene does make telling interventions on a number of songs, but these rarely seem to fit in with the overall tone and often come across as peculiarly aggressive, which in turn renders them weirdly brilliant.
I really like Lene's singing. I think she's fantastic. And although she occupies a fairly high register on most of Aquarium she is able to demonstrate her depth and range on a couple of the slower numbers. Those aside, everything else is pure, Hi NRG-inspire bubblegum. If you're over the age of twenty-five and ventured into a sticky 'no jeans, no trainers' alcopop-pit you'll recognise the 130-135 bpm Eurobeat that seemed to infect every dance pop hit of the era. Am I getting a touch of the ol' nostalgias listening to this? Just a bloomin' bit!
What sets them apart from the pack is that Aqua had a keen sense of kook. An examination of the lyrical content of 'Barbie Girl' reveals an ambiguity that could be readily interpreted as either a satirical swipe or straight celebration of the values and aspirations represented by the world's most famous doll. 'My Oh My' begins with a whinnying horse and features the slightly odd Rene line "gotta steal from the rich when they don't know I'm coming" - a clear allusion to Robin Hood which has little to do with the rest of the song. It's as if Aqua took a wilfully stupid pick 'n' mix approach to a few tropes around Merrie Olde England and whacked them into a song, which works perfectly.
Not everything works - 'Heat Of The Night' is, alas, nothing to do with the racially-charged Sidney Poitier / Rod Steiger cop drama, instead having more in common thematically with Wham's 'Club Tropicana'; here, Rene does a 'Spanish' accent much like Barry Davies used to when commenting on the World Cup. The next song, 'Be A Man' is a milquetoast attempt at something like 'Eternal Flame', but it doesn't really matter because the next song is the utterly bonkers 'Lollipop (Candyman)' - featuring a great parenthetical subtitle, no? - which ups the tempo and showcases Rene's very best, worryingly intense, gibberish.
Alas, Aqua were so much of their time and it couldn't last. Their next album, Aquarius, did relatively well in Europe but pretty much sucked. By the time of Megalomania Aqua had tried to slough off their cartoonish image, with predictably risible results, and in the process ridding themselves of much of their hyperactive charm. Nevertheless, we'll always have this beautifully off-kilter testament to the joys of unabashed pop. Fifty pence well spent.